The Real Winner of GOP’s 2022 Primaries Was Denial of 2020 Election

Candidates who insist that Donald Trump was robbed of victory in 2020 were nominated by Republican voters for key positions in the five states most likely to determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential race, setting them up for jobs where they could throw the election into chaos.

Nominees for governor in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as those for secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, pose an especially big risk for disruption because of the outsize role those battleground states play in determining the Electoral College victor.

If these contenders win in November, they could upset the 2024 election by refusing to allow certain voting machines to be used, forcing large groups of voters to re-register, making it harder to vote by mail or, in a worst-case scenario, declining to certify an election result. Some have already promised they would take these actions.

They are among a group of 254 Republicans Bloomberg News has identified who have either said the 2020 election was stolen or cast doubt on its legitimacy, including 185 current governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general or US Senate and House members, many of whom are seeking re-election this year, and 69 additional nominees.

Governors and secretaries of state have the most power over elections, but occupants of other state-level positions can also sow trouble. Attorneys general could sue to halt vote counting or bar certification of elections, while members of Congress could refuse to certify electors, two tactics used by Trump allies in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Election denial evangelists have been chosen as GOP gubernatorial nominees in Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; secretary of state nominees in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming; attorney general nominees in Arizona, Kansas, Maryland and Michigan; US senator nominees in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Oregon; and US House nominees in at least 20 states.

Downplaying Election Denial

In their primary races, Republican candidates found election denial to be a potent persuasion tool, a way to show allegiance to a former president who remains popular with his party’s base.

But as the general election campaign shifts into high gear, the GOP now faces different pressures that are compelling these nominees to weigh the strategy of walking back their rhetoric or continuing to amplify it.

Polling shows election denial could be a turnoff to all but the most die-hard Republican voters – a vulnerability Democrats are seeking to exploit.

Election Risk Index

At the same time, there are risks to retreating from Trump’s message on the issue, and it’s possible that voters’ focus on inflation, the economy and abortion will allow candidates to simply bury their record on the topic when it’s beneficial to do so.

Now, some have sought to reframe their earlier comments as merely raising questions about the best way to run elections or have shifted focus to pocketbook issues.

“They’re just fine-tuning their message,” Republican strategist Bryan Lanza said of GOP candidates. “If a poll comes back and says the top issues are the economy and immigration, why give your opponent something else to talk about?”

In Arizona, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters removed a sentence from his campaign website that said Trump would have won if the 2020 election wasn’t a “rotten mess.” In Maryland, Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox removed a sentence from his campaign website that noted he was one of “Trump’s volunteer lawyers in Philadelphia during the 2020 election.” In Michigan, Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon has gone from falsely claiming Trump won the state during a primary debate to declining to answer the question.

Nominees for Governor in Key States
Republicans who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election have won gubernatorial primaries, including in key presidential battlegrounds

Those subtle moves may be a concession that some candidates see a benefit to distancing themselves from election falsehoods or the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Their Democratic opponents, though, aren’t going to make that easy. Most prominently, Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro has repeatedly highlighted Republican rival Doug Mastriano’s involvement in Trump’s efforts to overturn the results in that state, which includes being outside the US Capitol on Jan. 6 and promising to throw out every voter registration in Pennsylvania and start over.

Other examples include an ad from Arizona Democratic gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs that targets her GOP rival Kari Lake; an ad from Democratic Senator Patty Murray in Washington that calls out Republicans but does not name her opponent, Tiffany Smiley; and an ad from Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur in Ohio against J.R. Majewski, who attended Trump’s Jan. 6 rally on the Ellipse.

The Republican Accountability PAC, a group of moderate GOP reformers, is also spending $10 million targeting election deniers in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin featuring Republican voters saying candidates like Mastriano are too extreme.

In a speech in Philadelphia Thursday, President Joe Biden singled out what he called “MAGA Republicans” who were running on election denial in November, saying they were a threat to American democracy.

“They refuse to accept the results of a free election, and they’re working right now as I speak in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself,” he said.

Some Democratic candidates and their allies are so convinced of the election deniers’ toxicity with voters that they elevated Republican candidates during the primary who had taken extreme positions on it, running ads that boosted Cox, Mastriano and Illinois gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey. The intention was that it would leave them with an easier victory in the general election.

There are also hints that a continued focus on election integrity could help Democrats in less prominent races.

Ellen Kurz, founder of iVote, which is campaigning for Democratic secretary of state nominees in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada, said her group has received five times as many small donations as 2018 amid a surge of interest in those races this year.

“It used to be an office I couldn’t get anyone to care about. I’d start explaining what we were doing, and they were like, ‘Yeah, I’m already asleep,’” she said. “It was like being an expert on dogcatchers.”

Democratic secretary of state candidates in Arizona and Massachusetts have aired ads criticizing their opponents’ election denial. But with smaller budgets, most are waiting to go on TV until closer to Election Day or relying on mailers and online ads to get the message out.

Nominees for Secretary of State in Key States
Republicans who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election have won gubernatorial primaries, including in key presidential battlegrounds

Still, some Republican nominees continue to look backward to 2020.

In Arizona, Lake and secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem filed a lawsuit to attempt to force the state to count all ballots by hand, a method that is less accurate, more time consuming and more expensive. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in late August.

On the campaign trail in Maine, Republican gubernatorial nominee and former two-term Governor Paul LePage has continued to make baseless claims of voter fraud in the state’s larger cities.

Such an approach could help keep Trump in their corner. The former president publicly withdrew an endorsement of Representative Mo Brooks in an Alabama Senate primary for saying it was time to move on from talking about the 2020 election, showing how much Trump values fealty on this issue.

Plus, for all Democrats’ conviction that election denial is a losing issue for the GOP in November, it’s not at all clear it will be a decisive one, with voters frequently telling pollsters inflation, the economy and abortion are top priorities.

Robert Cahaly, a Republican pollster in Georgia, said most voters are more concerned about the future than rehashing arguments about the 2020 election.

“Most people think that it’s done — like it or not, fair or not, it’s over,” he said. “They are focused on the future. A lot of other things are going to motivate Republicans and Democrats to turn out in November. The 2020 election is not in the top five.”

A prominent 2021 gubernatorial race might offer lessons for both parties about the potential for election denial to shape a campaign.

In Virginia, Democrats tried to make Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin’s ties to election deniers a campaign issue. President Joe Biden even made it a central theme at a campaign rally in the suburbs of Washington for Youngkin’s rival, Terry McAuliffe. It didn’t appear to work: Youngkin won the race.

Still, Virginia Democratic political consultant Ben Tribbet said that was partly because Youngkin was not as strident on the issue as some of the current Republican candidates.

Now, though, candidates like Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Lake in Arizona have already ensured that election denial will be a central issue in their races, Tribbett said, and those contests may have drawn enough national attention to cause voters in other states to give it consideration at the ballot box, too.

“Sometimes it becomes a central issue in the race, and that wakes people up,” he said.

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Graphics By: Paul Murray
Editors: Wendy Benjaminson, Wes Kosova, Alex Tribou and Yue Qiu
Photo editors: Eugene Reznik, Marisa Gertz and Maria Wood
Photo credits: Getty Images, Bloomberg and AP Photo